Champions League Final Preview: Liverpool vs. Real Madrid
Most of the soccer world is gearing up for the World Cup, which is set to get underway in Russia halfway through next month. While most domestic league campaigns around the world have ended, there is still one massive European match to go before we can fully set our sights on Russia. The UEFA Champions League Final is set for Saturday in Kiev, Ukraine, between world powerhouse Real Madrid and a high-octane Liverpool side.
If you look at league standings, this looks like a clash between a couple of solid, unspectacular clubs. Real Madrid stumbled to a third-place finish in La Liga, a whopping 17 points adrift of champions Barcelona. Liverpool, meanwhile, finished fourth in the Premier League behind both Manchester clubs and Tottenham Hotspur.
Of course, that would be an incredibly lazy way of analyzing these teams. There is an argument to be made that these have been the two best sides in Europe since the calendar flipped to 2018. If you don’t believe either team belongs here, you’re sorely mistaken. Saturday’s tilt in Kiev is going to be a fascinating clash of styles.
Will Real Madrid lift Europe’s most prestigious trophy for the third year running? Or will Liverpool end Spain’s 5-year run atop the competition?
Madrid Favored Again
Real have won the last 2 Champions Leagues, so it only makes sense that Los Blancos are favored heading into this one. While they’re favored, it’s not as though they’re heavy favorites. Madrid are listed at +124 to win in 90 minutes, while Liverpool are at +190. A draw in 90 minutes is +260.
However, Madrid are -150 to win the game in one way or another, while the Reds are +130.
The 2 sides took similar roads to Kiev, though they didn’t mirror each other perfectly. Madrid finished second in its group behind Tottenham Hotspur, while Liverpool topped a group that also included Sevilla. Los Blancos knocked off Paris St. Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich to reach the final, which is incredibly impressive.
Liverpool didn’t have to get through as many big clubs as Real did, but their road is still impressive, nevertheless. The Reds thrashed Porto in the round of 16 before toppling Premier league Champions Manchester City in the quarter-final. Jurgen Klopp’s side were also able to get past Roma in the last round before punching their ticket to Ukraine for the right to try and dethrone Real.
Why Real Madrid Will Win
Experience isn’t something we can measure quantifiably, but the fact that this is Madrid’s third consecutive appearance in this game has to count for something. Just look at last year’s match as an example. Los Blancos were in the midst of an historic campaign, but they faced a stiff test against a resolute Juventus side.
Despite allowing an early goal, Madrid controlled the pace of the game and ultimately cruised to an easy 4-1 victory. We saw Real kick it into another gear that night, and they showed that they’re plenty capable of absolutely demolishing even the world’s strongest opponents on any given night.
Leading up to the match, we have heard plenty of talk regarding Madrid’s alleged “weakness” at left back with Marcelo. The Brazilian is unquestionable one of the most impactful attacking defenders on the planet, yet year after year we hear about how the opposing team is going to be able to successfully exploit Marcelo’s eagerness to push forward.
Marcelo’s attacking ways certainly lead to the occasional defensive lapse, but Madrid’s other defenders have shown that they are more than capable of covering the ground he vacates when he pushes forward. Marcelo has shown that he’s capable of taking a more conservative approach if the game calls for it. We saw it when he played under Jose Mourinho. Zinedine Zidane allows for the player to get involved offensively, which he’s happy to do, as well.
It’s also worth noting that Real have that Cristiano Ronaldo guy. He’s still pretty good, even at 33. The Portuguese talisman has bagged 45 goals in all competitions this season, 15 of which have come in Champions League play. Even at his advanced age, Ronaldo presents a unique combination of size, speed and physicality that can give even the world’s best central defenders matchup issues.
When a team has world-class talent at just about every position, it’s hard to beat. While Real struggled with consistency in the league this season, we’ve seen during their CL run why they are still considered the world’s best by most. Ronaldo generates most of the headlines, which leaves other uber-talents like Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Isco, Casemiro and Karim Benzema under the radar, to a degree.
The lone “weak spot” in the squad may actually be between the posts. Keylor Navas is still an upper-echelon goalkeeper, but there’s a reason there have been transfer rumors already swirling regarding Madrid’s potential interest in an upgrade like David De Gea or Gianluigi Donnarumma. Navas is solid, but exploitable.
Why Liverpool Will Pull the Upset
The argument can be made that Liverpool have been the most well-coached team in Europe this season. Despite having battled injuries to a number of key players and the controversial sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in January, the Reds have managed to put together a stellar overall campaign.
Liverpool are a talented side in their own right, but nobody would tell you they have more star power than Real Madrid. There’s no shame in that, considering nobody has as much star power as Real Madrid. Even so, there is quite a bit of talent here, particularly up front. Even after the departure of Coutinho, Liverpool can boast arguably the most dynamic attacking trio on the planet with Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
I mentioned the supposed “weakness” that comes when Marcelo gets up the pitch for Real. While this is not nearly as glaring a weakness as some want you to think, Liverpool might be one of the few teams in the world capable of exploiting it. Salah will be on the same side of the pitch as Marcelo all day long, and Salah has been using his pace to blitz his way past defenders down the wings all year long. Marcelo can cover some ground, but he’s going to have his hands full against the Egyptian here.
LFC will also need to win the battle in the center of the pitch. While Salah-Marcelo will be a fascinating battle, it’ll be interesting to see how the less-heralded players fare against one another. Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum will go up against the Real midfield of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Isco.
Milner and Henderson have been stalwarts for Klopp all season long. Milner quietly set a new record for most assists ever in a Champions League (8), while Henderson has been phenomenal defensively in midfield. Shutting off passing lanes for Madrid’s dynamic midfielders will be a key for the Reds if they plan to pull off the upset and dethrone Madrid.
Who Will Win?
If you want the safe pick, take Madrid. This is just about the same side we saw lift the trophy a year ago, and they have a vast amount of experience on Europe’s biggest stage. Liverpool, meanwhile, have almost zero experience at this level. Klopp has coached in this game before during his time with Borussia Dortmund, but the Reds don’t have a single player in the squad that has ever played in a CL Final.
Madrid have all sorts of threatening attackers, and Liverpool have a reputation as a relatively weak defensive squad. That has changed considerably since the massive acquisition of central defender Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton halfway through the season. The Reds have long lacked a defender with Van Dijk’s leadership skills and dominant defensive presence. He and Loris Karius, who has seized Liverpool’s full-time goalkeeper job, have helped solidify what was once a weak spot in Liverpool’s armor.
The value play is Liverpool, obviously. Jurgen Klopp’s side has shown a knack for struggling to break down sides willing to park the bus and defend against them, while they have been much more effective in attack in an underdog role. The Reds are the clear underdogs in this one, though they’ve shown throughout their campaign that they are unafraid of going toe-to-toe with the best Europe can throw at them.
I think this is the time Klopp finally gets his first major win in a final. Liverpool will end Real’s reign at the top of European soccer.